The red light district got former sex worker, Nicole Hussin, off the streets.
At 13, Nicole Hussin was about to make her debut as a transgender sex worker. She was then a pre-pubescent boy who ran away from home.
Dressed in a wig and dress, Nicole confidently strode down Lorong 16 in Geylang – until the first man came up to her and asked for her rates.
"I felt myself drop. I was like, 'Am I a prostitute now?'" recalled 23-year-old Nicole softly.
That experience, now imprinted in her memory, marked the start of Nicole’s nine-year journey into sex work. Nicole worked for six years in Geylang, and later in Orchard Towers as a social escort.
Almost 10 years after entering the sex work industry, the former sex worker and social escort now walks the streets for a different cause – she distributes condoms and safe sex advice to those who were like her.
She recalled an incident in June: "So this sex worker came up and I had to break the news that she has HIV. I got the results in my hand and I was about to tell her. Then I said, 'Wait, wait, wait, hold on ah.' I went into the toilet and started crying.
"It was so hard for me. That could have been me."
Growing up in a dysfunctional family
Growing up in a single parent Muslim family, her mother could not accept her decision to become a transgender woman. Support from other family members was scarce. While her mother was trying to make ends meet for Nicole and her six siblings, her brother and father were in prison for drug-related offences.
Family troubles gradually prompted Nicole to run away from home with a bag of clothes and her mum’s makeup when she was just 13.
"I didn't have anywhere to stay, I was at Esplanade just sleeping outside…with my bag and stuff and I didn't have like anywhere to go. I was like, I need money, I'm starving, I didn't eat for days. F*** it I'm going to do this," said Nicole, recalling how she ended up on the streets of Geylang.
What drew her to the red light district?
"I was afraid, yet at the same time, I was fascinated. I was like 'Wow, these women are so sexy – with their boobs.'
"At the same time, I'm like 'What am I gonna do, I'm just a 13-year-old boy and I look like s***.' And I just sat there, on the streets."
A transgender woman soon took her in, providing food, shelter and hormones.
Nicole recollected: "She said to me, 'You want to be a woman, right? If you want to have boobs and cut off everything, you need to work and save money.'"
Her first time
Becoming a sex worker was an "overload of emotions" for Nicole. She did not expect to lose her virginity to her first client.
She turned emotional as she recounted her experience: "We went to the designated room. We were given a condom and two towels.
"I took off everything. And when it came to the deed itself, I cried.
"When he drily inserted, I was bleeding and in so much pain. I was thinking, 'What am I doing to my life?'," added Nicole, who said she bled profusely for a few weeks after that painful encounter.
She struggled to come to terms with sex work being just a "job".
"Your body is a very sacred thing. For you to disrobe for someone…that is my dignity I'm giving you," she said.
But when she saw the amount of money she earned in her first week, Nicole was hooked.
"Sex work is addictive. When you look at the money, the job is really nothing…what you do to these men, these poor little bastards, all of them.
"That's how I learnt not to look down on myself…because at the end of the day I'm happy; I get what I want, these guys get what they want. It was a win-win situation for everyone."
Nicole moved to Orchard Towers in 2010. The move elevated her status, she said, as it was where sex workers could command higher prices.
Her face lit up with a tinge of pride when asked about her days at Orchard Towers.
She shared candidly: "I once said to a man, 'You wanna come home with me? $1,000.' He paid me up front, and it was only for an hour."
Just when her journey to become a woman was going smoothly, her mother lodged a missing person police report on two separate occasions. She got caught by the police and Nicole, then 16, was sent to the Singapore Boys' Home.
Taking in an exceptionally long puff, Nicole hesitated before recalling her two years in the home.
"Since I went in, I was segregated from the rest. I had no one to turn to, even the social workers there didn't understand me," said Nicole, who alleges she was bullied by other boys in the home.
Her experience in the Boys' Home led her to believe that education was the only way out.
She explained: "I needed to learn how to put my thoughts into a language that I could transmit to the world."
After being released, she enrolled herself in Republic Polytechnic to study mass communications. None of her friends knew of her double identity – she was a student by day, and a sex worker by night.
Her life took an unexpected turn when she met her first boyfriend while working at Orchard Towers. Nicole's facial expressions softened as she spoke about how he paid for her company every night for two consecutive weeks.
"The best part was he didn't touch me at all. He just let me sleep on my side."
He later paid for Nicole's chest and hip implants – when she was just 18, and she stopped sex work temporarily.
She said: "I always joke about it, that I'm born in Singapore but my body is made in Thailand."
The relationship lasted for about two years, and she had two other failed and abusive relationships after that.
Becoming a social escort at 22
Nicole re-entered the sex industry as a full-time social escort at 22.
"When I started being an escort, I told myself, 'Wow, I could stay in this job for a long time.' I love it, and the money is good as well, you know?
"You feel classier…your life is more private and nobody really knows what you're doing with the guy," she said.
Despite having endured failed relationships and so many encounters with nasty men, Nicole still believes in love.
"There's the right guy out there," she proclaimed confidently.
And she thinks she has found him. Nicole left the sex work industry again in February this year after meeting her current boyfriend Crag.
They met in a bar, she said.
"He had seen me around. So he bought me a drink, you know the classic way? This guy was very subtle. I thought it was like going to be like a one-night stand kinda thing," she added.
Her 36-year-old boyfriend has kept her busy. He helped her set up a YouTube beauty channel, and has been encouraging her to pursue her interest in writing.
Coming to terms with her past
While most would be embarrassed about such a past, Nicole is willing to go public with her story as she has "come to terms" with her past experience as a sex worker.
She is not shy about it too. As we ended this interview, Nicole took us around the streets in Geylang and showed us where she used to work, sharing some anecdotes along the way.
However, while she does not deny being a former sex worker, the term 'prostitute' still plagues her and makes her feel uncomfortable.
"Up till today, I don't want to admit that I was a…prostitute. Because I'm not a prostitute, I was just doing it for money," said Nicole.
Sex work has taught her to value herself more, she said.
She explained: "You don't see the intensity of surrendering yourself to someone. That's a very scary thing. Not any random person can just let that happen.
"It's an honest living, although religious beliefs say, 'Oh my god, you're a prostitute. Cannot. You're going straight to hell.'
"But that one ah, later then talk ah. Now I'm still alive, so like what the f***?"
This is the final part of a two-part series on transgender sex workers in Singapore. Also in this series: